Lump charcoal may not sound like the most exciting product to review, however, if you are a grill aficionado - and let us be honest here and say that a lot of us are - then lump charcoal can help make the difference between a good steak and a great steak.Burning at high temperature with minimal waste, lump charcoal is made from pure wood, unlike briquettes which can contain composite woods as well as additives to bind the wood into briquettes. In this review we not only look at some of the best lump charcoal currently available, but also what lump charcoal offers to us as well as some of the issues in charcoal production and how charcoal and grilling may affect our health.
The Fogo FHWC35LB super premium lump charcoal is our best pick as a sustainable Central American hardwood charcoal for full mellow oak smoke within 15 minutes.
The Jealous Devil hardwood lump charcoal is our budget pick as a hand cut, hand picked charcoal made from renewable South American hardwood.
Quick Comparison: Top 10 Best Lump Charcoal
1. Fogo FHWC35LB Super Premium Lump Charcoal
The 35lb Fogo FHWC35LB super premium lump charcoal lights quickly and burns hotter for longer. Made sustainably from Central American hardwood oak trimmings, it gives a full mellow oak smoke flavor and its larger lumps are hand selected and ready to burn within 15 minutes.Some users may find it takes longer to start with larger lumps and some of these may even be too large, so you may need to break them up before burning. This is a hot burning hardwood charcoal - ideal for searing.
2. Jealous Devil Hardwood Lump Charcoal
Made from 100% renewable dense South American hardwood, the Jealous Devil hardwood lump charcoal is hand cut and handpicked for larger pieces. Some users may not be as keen on the milder flavor from this, as like any grilling, flavor is very personal.
It seems a cooler burn than other charcoals, so may not be as suitable if you need high grill temperatures for searing. The packaging has recently changed on this as some styles of bags were more prone to tearing and leaking.
3. KamadoJoe KJCHAR KJ-CHARBOX Hardwood Extra Large Lump Charcoal
The KamadoJoe big block XL lump charcoal is a blend of three Argentinian hardwoods, Guayacan, Guayaibi, Mistal and White Quebracho. This blend produces large lumps that burn longer, up to 18 hours, with more flavor and better smoke.The lump sizes may be inconsistent and some of the larger pieces may need hand breaking before use. As this is a more distinct blend of hardwoods, the flavor from these may not be to everyone’s taste.
4. Original Natural Charcoal Hardwood Lump Charcoal
The Original Natural Charcoal hardwood lump charcoal is a distinct blend of 100% hardwood apple, cherry and oak trees. This gives a fruity and sweet flavor ideal for pork, poultry, beef and game birds. A sustainable, low spark and low ash charcoal, you can light it using paper only and it comes with a 100% Sizzling Guarantee.As this charcoal can burn hotter and faster than other charcoals, you may need to alter your cooking times.
5. Fogo Hardwood Charcoal
With a mild oaky smoke, the Fogo hardwood charcoal is made from Central American hardwood trimmings and selected trees. Although ready to grill in 15 minutes, as it burns hot and fast, it may need more refilling on longer burns.Although suitable for all types of grills and smokers, the manufacturer recommends its use for specific types of grills and smokers. The compact 8.8lb bag may contain smaller lumps than some users would like.
6. Royal Oak 195228071 Lump Charcoal
The Royal Oak 195228071 lump charcoal is a hardwood charcoal made from renewable American oak, maple, hickory and walnut. It is ready to cook in 15 minutes and can burn for up to 18 hours. Producing minimal ash, it is available in a smaller 8.8lb bag.
7. Big Green Egg 100% Natural Oak and Hickory Lump Charcoal
The Big Green Egg 100% natural oak and hickory lump charcoal contains premium cuts of American oak and hickory and is made in the US. It is easy to light and usually ready to use in around 10 minutes. A minimal waste charcoal, it comes in a 20lb bag and meets EPA environmental guidelines.
8. B&B Better Burning Oak Lump Charcoal
The B&B Better Burning Charcoal is 100% natural oak lump charcoal that gives a mild oak flavor. This comes in a 20lb bag and is environmentally friendly. Some users may find that it can spark and that it may produce more ash than comparable products.
9. Rockwood Lump Charcoal
The 3 pack of Rockwood lump charcoal is made in the US from 100% waste Missouri hardwoods - a mix of oak and hickory with some pecan and maple. It is suitable for use in all grills or smokers but especially kamado-style grills. As natural charcoal, it does come in different sized lumps which can mean occasional wastage with smaller lumps falling through the grate.
As it may not burn quite as well at high temperatures, it may be more suitable for slower and cooler burns. There is also the chance that users may find stones or other debris in this charcoal. This is common with lump charcoal, so it is always worth a quick visual check when placing any charcoal on the grill.
10. Char-Broil Center Cut Lump Charcoal
The premium Char-Broil center cut lump charcoal comes from organic center-cut hardwood trees, does not contain any limbs or bark. The lumps are more uniform in size - around 3" - than other lump charcoal, although some users report significantly smaller lumps than these in the box. This is a faster burning charcoal.Coming in a 11lb box, this charcoal is fired longer to make it lighter weight and produce less than 3% waste.
Things to Consider Before Buying Lump Charcoal
The Difference Between Lump Charcoal and Briquettes
Lump charcoal or charwood is made when pieces of wood are slowly burnt without oxygen until all the moisture, sap and natural chemicals are removed from the wood. This just leaves carbon. Lump charcoal can respond to different amounts of oxygen well, which means that when you open your grill or cooker vents during cooking the temperature will adjust. Lump charcoal can get up to around 1400°F and produces little waste ash when burnt.
Briquettes are made in the same way as lump charcoal but often made from leftover soft, hard or composite woods and sawdust, with the addition of additives such as cornstarch, which hold the briquettes together in uniform shapes.
Briquettes may also contain chemicals to help them start faster and some users say you may end up tasting these in lighter foods such as fish or chicken – although there is little scientific evidence to confirm this. Although briquettes burn longer than lump charcoal, they do produce more waste ash and air pollutants.
One disadvantage of lump charcoal is that it does come in lumps of varying sizes which can make it more awkward when grilling. Also, when lump charcoal hits top temperature it will begin cooling quickly and can drop from high heat to medium heat in under 30 minutes. This means you need to watch it carefully, so you can add more charcoal to maintain temperature.
Because briquettes are the same size and composition, you can rely on their output – around 45 briquettes will give consistent heat for around an hour. Briquettes burn between 800°F and 1000°F, cooler than lump charcoal.
As well as burning hotter and faster than briquettes, lump charcoal is more expensive, although it does tend to light easier. Lump charcoal can be a bonus if you want meats medium-rare inside but well seared on the outside and you may need to use a two zone cooking system with lump charcoal, so you can move seared foods across to a cooler area of the grill to finish cooking.
Many recipes give instructions using briquettes, so there may be some adjustments when calculating the amount of lump charcoal for a successful cook.
Grill Cooking Times
To ensure that food cooks properly and to its safe minimum internal temperature, you should always use a thermometer. However, when preparing the grill for use, you can use your hand as a rough temperature gauge! If you hold your hand around a foot above the grill, the guidelines below will give you an easy temperature reckoning.
If you can hold your hand over the grill for between five to seven seconds, it is a medium low heat of around 325°F to 350°F; three to four seconds is a medium heat in the 350° F to 375°F range.
One to two seconds is a hot 400°F to 500°F and a very hot grill, when your hand can stay in place for less than a second, is around 600°F and upwards.
Lighting Lump Charcoal
There are several ways to light lump charcoal. The most basic way is with paper, kindling and charcoal, but this can be less than reliable and is never easy in the wet. The next basic method is to add a couple of firestarters to the charcoal.
A charcoal chimney is another choice - a basic tube that holds the charcoal in place while you light from the bottom, or you can use an electric starter or some of the braver hearted may reach for the blowtorch.
As tempting as it may be to use lighter fluid or related products, you should always avoid them as they may leave an unpleasant or ‘chemically’ aftertaste in your food.
The Human and Environmental Costs of Charcoal Manufacturing
Charcoal production can occur in some of the world’s poorest and often conflicted countries, where it is also the main energy source as well as a commercial export interest.
Charcoal workers often suffer exploitation as there is little other work available and these workers earn pay by the amount of charcoal they produce, not the long labor-intensive hours that they work.
Charcoal production also contributes to extensive deforestation, although organizations such as the UN are now working in these countries to help production to continue sustainably.
When selecting charcoal, you may prefer to look for sustainably produced charcoal, such as from tree trimmings or from virgin trees categorized for clearance – such as when building a new housing complex. You may also want to look at where it is made, such as in the US, as this will assure you of decent labor conditions and wages.
Charcoal Grills and Air Pollution
Charcoal grills contribute to air pollution by adding to greenhouse gases in the environment, although the levels of pollution are considerably less than those from motor vehicles, industry or electricity generation.
Many US states are now cracking down on grills, such as in California, where owners of specific types of restaurant are being asked to register their charbroilers, or in some cases are being offered incentives to use greener technologies.
Carbon Monoxide Safety and Charcoal Grills
When we are grilling and a storm rolls in it can be all too easy to wheel the grill into the garage to continue cooking. Unfortunately, this increases our risk of carbon monoxide poisoning – which is why grilling or smoking should always take place outdoors.
Carbon monoxide kills over 400 people a year in the US and sends more than 20,000 people to the emergency room. Because carbon monoxide is odorless, tasteless and colorless and gets into our bloodstream easier than oxygen, we may only become aware that we have been breathing it in when it is too late.
We can help reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning by always trying to keep a charcoal grill or cooker at least 20 ft away from our doors, windows and vents. Because we also have a risk of carbon monoxide from other appliances such as gas ranges, fireplaces and woodburning stoves, fitting carbon monoxide detectors in the home will help reduce the risk of illness or even death from this deadly gas.
Health Considerations of Grilling Food
When meats or fish cook over an open flame (or by pan frying), they generate chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Research shows that these PAHs and HCAs are mutagenic, which means they can cause changes to our DNA that may increase our risk of cancer.
HCAs occur when the sugars, amino acids and creatinine or creatine in meats react at high temperatures. PAHs occur when the fat or juice from meat drips onto the fire and the smoke that occurs from this contains PAHs which then stick to the surface of the meat. PAHs also occur during meat smoking and are in other smoked foods, car exhaust fumes and tobacco smoke.
How much PAHs or HCAs occur depends on the type of meat, how it is cooked and its ‘doneness’. Well-done grilled or BBQ meats will usually have more HCAs and if these are exposed to smoke, then they may have more PAHs.
Like any mutagen, it is difficult to know how much PAHs and HCAs we are exposed to, our ability to metabolize these chemicals and what our lifestyle differences are. There are currently no federal guidelines for eating foods containing PAHs or HCAs although research continues around meat intake, cooking methods and cancer risk.
Some tips to help minimize PAHs and HCAs developing include; grilling smaller pieces and leaner cuts, avoiding longer cooking times at higher temperatures, microwaving meat before finishing its cook over high heat and turning meat over constantly. Also removing the charred meat and not making gravy from drippings can help reduce exposure.
Although there are some disadvantages to lump charcoal, including higher costs and inconsistent sizing; lump charcoal is now the ‘go-to’ fuel for many of us when we roll the grill out. Made from hardwoods, lump charcoal can offer distinct smoke flavors as well as burning at higher temperatures, cleanly and with minimal ash, all of which are advantages over traditional BBQ briquettes.We hope that this review of lump charcoal provides you with the information you need to choose the best lump charcoal for your grill, cooker or smoker – helping ensure that next time the grill is rolled out, your steaks truly will be a cut above the rest.